If you start following wingstem, with an intent to admire or photograph, at the end of August in Highland County, Virginia, it is hard to stop. There is always one more scenic road, one more view of hundreds of yellow petals waving haphazardly atop firm, straight stems in the sun or in a glowing shade. Tall, up to 13 feet, and unbranched, it forms dense stands in damp ditches, along waterways, and on moist hillsides. From a distance, the yellow ribbons of wingstem (Verbesina alternifolia) prominently mark changes in topography and moisture of Highland’s five beautiful valleys.
Of course, one doesn’t necessarily follow something, unless one is fleeing another something. The last few days we have been cleaning out my parents’ old farmhouse in Vinegar Hollow, encountering mounds of dusty debris, a long-dead rodent under the icebox, many moldy, rusted things, once useful, and now difficult to salvage. It is hard to so tangibly acknowledge the termination of two passionate people’s (my parents) endeavors. So, one hits the open air and the open road to counterbalance this stressful housecleaning operation.
We leave the hollow, driving south on 220 toward Warm Springs. A left turn opposite Lamb’s Hollow leads us across the Jackson River, where we encounter roadsides, hillsides, and fields filled with wingstem. In one meadow along a section of the road known as Dry Branch, a dappled gray horse comes into view.
Sensing our presence, the solitary horse soon gallops away towards its barn. Dry Branch is aptly named because, although some of it has water, many parts are dry. This is limestone country, and water easily disappears into underground caves.
Wingstem, a member of the Compositae or Asteraceae (the daisy/sunflower family) is named for its wingedness. The petioles of the leaves lead into ridges, called wings, on the stems. This is not totally uncommon in plants. Burning bush, for example, bears prominent woody or corky wings on its stems. Wingstem has rough, sandpapery leaves that bear marks of numerous predators, but it outgrows all the chewers beautifully.
There can never be too much wingstem. Because it is so tough, so tall, and so yellow. And another admirable quality is that in the winter it vanishes, all of its abundant foliage replenishing the Earth. If only humans’ “stuff” could do so as well, vanish, without the artefacts of imperfect ownership littering the landscape.